February 12 2023 “Alignment of thought, word and deed”
For the better part of the past two weeks, I sat on a jury in a trial involving eight counts of attempted murder. It was far more complicated than it seemed, but we had two binary choices: guilty or not guilty. In the end after many hours of deliberation we found the defendant guilty on all counts. I think we followed the law fairly. The surviving victims and what seemed to be their families and friends were sitting in the courtroom when the verdict was read, and judging from their tears I think they had some relief. But it broke my heart how little real healing our justice system can actually provide for the victims or the accused, who is also a human being trying to live his life.
Whether or not you have ever served on a jury, I think we can all look around at this world and see how much need there is for something different, something better, in so many aspects of our common life. We don’t need to look far at all to see what isn’t working. And in the midst of these tragedies and suffering, how can we be people of hope and healing that is real, that actually does work?
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is in the middle of one of his most famous teachings called the Sermon on the Mount. I found it ironic that he talked so much about judgment and courtrooms given my own intense experience of the past two weeks. Jesus had just emerged from 40 days in the wilderness, a time of fasting and prayer and temptation. Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston says that for him as a Native American elder who is also a Christian, this was the first of four vision quests Jesus made. Now obviously Jesus was not a Native American elder, but all of us can and should deeply engage the person of Jesus from our own perspective, and that is just what Bishop Charleston is doing. In Native tradition, the “devil” figure in Jesus’ wilderness temptation was not a personification of evil, but a part of the self, the capacity for evil that exists within each one of us. At the end of Jesus’ wilderness time he returns and then sits down on a mountain to teach his disciples the wisdom he has distilled from his tradition and his own sacred vision, what the Spirit has taught him in his vision quest. And for Charleston, what the Spirit had taught Jesus was:
…the primacy of God, the centrality of the “we” over the “I”, the egalitarian nature of sacred community. Jesus rejects the rugged individualism that inflates the human ego and leads to the exploitation of greed. He stands against those temptations that are truly devilish in every human heart, the lure of ego and profit.
And from that vision, Jesus in today’s gospel reading is teaching about the continuity between heart, mind and action that is required for us truly to follow God’s commandments and God’s covenant. It is not enough to simply be people who avoid committing violence with our hands. We must also avoid committing violence with our thoughts and our words, because energy is as real as matter, and because thoughts and words have an impact as surely as weapons and fists do. It is not enough to avoid adultery, the taking of another human being in violation of one’s marital covenant. One must also avoid the lie of taking another human being in thought and eyes while being outwardly respectful. Jesus is insisting that our mental state, our interior dialogue, is as important as our actions, because the temptation to selfishness and possession and greed begins in the heart and in the mind.
In Jesus, we have a vision of what he calls the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven, for Jesus, is not just the afterlife, although that too is important. The kingdom of heaven begins here on earth, and it is embodied when heart, mind and action are aligned in goodness and service to our Creator. In the kingdom of heaven, we are not limited to judgment and punishment, to guilty or not guilty. The kingdom of heaven is the place where hope and healing are real, the alternative to all that is not working in this world. In the kingdom of heaven forgiveness is possible, amends can be made, the total transformation of human consciousness and therefore human action can occur. Has there ever been a time on this planet when such a transformation has been more urgently needed?
Let me lead you on an exercise, if you would be willing. If you have a pen and you would like, consider jotting some notes on your bulletin. Think back on the last week and about what was going on in the world of your action. What did you do, every day?
Now think back on the world of your mind. What was going on in your mind, this week? What most occupied your thoughts?
And finally, what was going on in your heart, this week? Were you aware of what was happening in this vast organ of spiritual perception called your heart? And in the world of your feeling and intuition, and spiritual sight?
Was there any place this week where you felt truly aligned in action, thought and heart? Where you knew you were acting from wholeness, from a healed and loving mind?
And if you are anything like me, you probably experienced times this week when you were not aligned at all. Where, this week, were you least aligned? Where your body, mind and spirit were pulling in different directions, and not for the good of yourself or others?
After the 9am service when I preached this sermon, someone said to me, “Tell us a story of a time you felt aligned.” I can tell you there are times I do feel aligned. And it’s almost always, honestly, when I just ask for help. I believe we are in a benevolent universe. As much grief and trauma, sorrow and suffering as there is, still the nature of the universe is love. And I believe that the presence of God is everywhere, wanting to help us, in many ways. Whatever you believe about these things literally, our tradition talks about saints and angels. Native American tradition talks about ancestors and spirits. There is literally the natural world around us all the time who are not just other beings but also teachers. And if you will ask for help, and then open yourself to receive that help, it comes. I can’t tell you how it will come for you. But I know it does for me.
Imagine that there is a real Spirit of Christ, a real Holy Spirit, that is as present to us as the invisible air we breathe, who is waiting to help us come from a good place, to heal what is hurt and angry within us, to help us live in a way that cares for everything and everyone. As Jesus said 2000 years ago and as is still true, the kingdom of heaven has come very near to us. All we need to do is step over the border into it. And then seek to align our heart, thoughts, and actions with the will of our Creator for life and wholeness. We can accept the help of God and of Christ, of angels and ancestors and all the power of Spirit to help us.
We may not be able to instantly end the war in Ukraine, or make our justice system one that restores instead of just punishing. But we can love the refugees and immigrants we encounter, and visit prisoners the world has judged guilty, and avoid doing violence that creates more trauma. We can become people of healing who walk not in our isolated minds but in a web of interconnected embodied life. We can and should seek to impact our systems for good. But we should also care for the state of our minds and words and energy, so that we create ripple effects of love and humility and compassion wherever we go.
This week, if you would like, please join me in considering carefully the energy that we put out into the world. People pay more attention to that than to anything we say. Let us humbly ask God to help us heal and align our thoughts, words and deeds. To consider where we perhaps speak too much, and fail to listen carefully to what is said and unsaid, and to what the Spirit wishes to tell us.
And as the light of the sun strengthens and increases every day, let the light of honesty about our thoughts, words and deeds show us what next steps we need to take, so that we may love God with all our hearts, strength and mind, and so that we may embody love to our neighbors. Amen.
 Steven Charleston, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus (Morehouse Publishing, 2015), chapter 6.